View Full Version : Suggestions for a Composition primer

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05-31-2007, 08:18 AM
Copake ham

You got so many different advices.
If you want to learn, lake anywhere, two ways: yourself, or school.
If you take yourself it can take you and some 10 years to take off. If you go in school it will take you around 10 years to became an artist. The better school the less time after school will take you. Learning about composition will set you and many other questions, say perspective or working with light, or how to solve some artistical problem, ….
It is nothing different then how to become engineer or doctor. You can learn to twist the screw at the right torque, but it will not make you engineer. Nothing is different in art. Part time “artists” never made it, just like part time engineers or programmers.
If you wish to be an artist and learn many things turn your life. Rich is one that is happy not one that have money. Just “bite the bullet”.


Roger Hicks
05-31-2007, 09:37 AM
Stop by the bookstore once a month and read sections of magazine where the editors review readers photographs.

Or even buy them, to make sure the magazines and bookstores stay in business. If you don't want to buy magazines, then at least read them at the library, where SOMEONE has paid for them.



sun of sand
06-02-2007, 12:16 PM
I think the most important thing is balance.
Where is the most weight
and what is countering it

Look at your favorite paintings
Athletes in motion
you'll understand weight soon enough

Attached is a photo of a guy comparing himself to Tiger Woods
He wrote an entire "essay" on just how similar
"nearly identical"
their swings are
He said it was just the natural athletic talent that Tiger has that separates them

Yeah, probably
But if you look for a just a second it's obvious that the swings are
not at all alike!
It's hilarious

Where is Bob's weight in the swing? Where is Tigers?
Bob looks as though he's out sweeping the driveway
Tiger is bashing the balls skull in.
Bob is standing still, hovering over the ball like a drunk wondering what the hell that yellow thing is
Tiger is practically sprinting

The difference
mere inches
practically miles
This guy will never compete with Tiger Woods till he begins to see weight
well, he will never have Tigers swing

Books make money.
Experience gives the knowledge to enable the writing of books.
Kids don't read books
Kids play
Kids put in work
Kids are scientists
Adults are people with money in their pockets wishing to buy knowledge

Like other have said
Go out and play
Don't come in till mommy yells for you and then make up an excuse to stay out 5 minutes longer
If you get spanked
So what?
If those 5 minutes don't mean everything to you
probably never make it to that level you'd like to make it to

06-02-2007, 08:27 PM
Henry Rankin Poore

http://www.botzilla.com/pix2005/amotxsl.jpg (http://www.botzilla.com/blog/archives/000359.html)

Michel Hardy-Vallée
06-02-2007, 10:52 PM
I second Poore's work, "Composition in Art" is a composition primer, available cheaply from Dover pubs. Sometimes I find the explanations rather obscure, but his book gives you the ability to analyze composition. He doesn't really take the "composition rules" road, rather he shows you how painters organize their work according to ideas like balance, line, color, shadow/light, etc. Once you can analyze a scene according to such tools (or similar ones, every artist have their own way of decomposing a scene), then you have a much stronger power in your hand.

Once you pored through Poore, go pick up a few painting books and a few photography books and try to see if you can reverse-engineer the way in which they are composed. You will be surprised to find geometrical regularities, equal areas of shadows and light, and so on.

The epiphanic moment about composition for me was when I realized that the pictorial space and the picture plane can be understood distinctively, so that you can build relationships between the two. For example, a vague shadow pattern that is happening in depth in a photo (3D), actually creates a perfectly geometrical manner on the picture plane (2D).

For me, it happened when I looked at the Polaroids series of Walker Evans. I was able to "get" seemingly banal pictures by understanding their composition. Eggleston does that to me too.

06-04-2007, 03:15 PM
You might find "Image: Designing Effective Pictures" by Michael Freeman useful. I got it on recomendation by somebody a while back, and am just starting it now. It's from the Amphoto workshop series, and has a number of projects throughout it. I just finished "Learning To See Creatively" by Bryan Peterson. Also basic, but helps to stimulate thought on composition- some good ideas. As others have said (as do these books), painters are good people to look to.


06-12-2007, 12:24 AM
Finally, a thread that tackles one of the most important things! All academic theories of photographic composition come directly, with a few elaborations, from theories of painterly composition. Forget about photography when learning about composition, it is a very recently invented tool. Go to the painters and draughtsmen who have been working since man first began to walk upright. For an understanding of picture-making in general it is wise to start with the greatest -- da Vinci's treatise on painting, unfortunately scattered through his writings and cluttered with his inimitable asides, but giving a unique understanding of seeing and perceiving from the hand of the greatest draughtsman who ever lived. Many of his insights cannot be understood until you have achieved a certain "serenity of seeing" that is very much at odds with modern life. One always falls well short when one deals with da Vinci.

Study the paintings of the Masters in all their glory, absorb their theories when they expressed them (they often did), there is nothing that a reasonably well-educated person cannot understand. Art history is largely irrelevant in this pursuit, since it deals primarily with tracking content -- inspiration and influences from the historical perspective -- with very little to say about how pictures were made, the materials and techniques involved.

Above all, become at least an adequate draughtsman as someone has already expressed. Forget photography. Spend a year in a life drawing class with a good teacher and pleasant fellow students. Expose yourself to the human figure and a large, empty sheet of paper. Start seeing in earnest. It is no coincidence that many of the greatest photographers knew how to draw rather well.

06-18-2007, 06:55 PM
What coincidence! I was just reading through this thread, when I noticed the Portland Art Museum is having a show focusing on Rembrandt and the Dutch masters!
I'm going to go in tomorrow.

08-11-2007, 03:59 AM
I learnt a lot about composition by looking at photographs I didn't like and working out why.. It's not only targetting the positives, it's avoiding the negatives

wayne naughton
08-11-2007, 06:36 AM
You just made my day.

The above is the advice I dish out to people asking about composition and learning to photograph well. Photography is closely related to painting in the composition, we're just using different instruments to actually play the final score.

Course, nobody ever actually visits the museums and studies the things I suggest, but I keep on giving the same advice....

amen to the both of you..... i am a great fan of the 'new objective' art movement where painting and photography met pretty much on equal terms for a brief period...spend some time with the paintings of Dix, Schlicter, Grosz et al, and i promise you, your photography will never be the same. associated photographers include the immortal August Sander, Karl Blossfeldt and Albert Renger-Patzsch.


08-11-2007, 08:57 AM
I think that John Shaw's photographs in his photo books are useful to look at. Donald Miller's photos on the gallery are instructive. Inernet galleries of famous photographers are helpful. I like all the Ansel Adams books. Also, zipping through the APUG galleries allows you to quickly see what catches your eye and what does not. Then slow down and study why that is so.

Of course, some of this just depends on what you like. For example some people seem really excited about muddy platinum prints or random pinhole camera shots. Likewise ULF contact prints with minimal depth of field and bokeh. To each his own but if you study what you don't like you can learn also.

08-12-2007, 07:32 AM
Any rules of composition no matter where one finds them (books, museums, workshops etc.) are made to be broken. My mentors in photography all instructed me to just "really" look at the world around me. If it looks good to one's eye, it is worth recording on film. Save your money on books and workshops and just shoot a lot. Your compositional "eye" will develop its own style.


Les McLean
08-12-2007, 10:49 AM
Any rules of composition no matter where one finds them (books, museums, workshops etc.) are made to be broken. My mentors in photography all instructed me to just "really" look at the world around me. If it looks good to one's eye, it is worth recording on film. Save your money on books and workshops and just shoot a lot. Your compositional "eye" will develop its own style.


I'm with PhotoHistorian on this subject. Composition is a very subjective issue, look at the number of difference suggestions and recommendations from this short thread. In my early days I was given similar advice to what PhotoHistorian received and I have used it ever since. When I'm asked about composition when I teach workshops I simply tell photographers to go out and make photographs and arrange the elements where they feel comfortable with them and regardless of where they are placed make the exposure.

I also suggest that we should look at the use of light and how it affects the subject we are photographing. In this respect I have looked at many photographers and painters work, my favorites are Rhembrandt and the impressionist artists such as Turner.

08-12-2007, 12:02 PM
I like looking at paintings and other photographs but I found that if I studied them I started to think like them. I did not like the feeling. Here is what a painter/sculptor I know told me.

If something catches your eye, stop and figure out what about it caught you. It was not just the color, or the texture. You saw the painting/photograph at the time it caught your eye. Once you figure out what caught your eye you are well on your way to creating your own stuff.

I have been doing this ever since. Haven't made it yet, but it keeps me thinking about me and how I see.

I have read Freeman Patterson's books and love his composition. Yeah, he prints with ink but so what, the images rock. If you need to read something I recommend his instructional series.

08-12-2007, 03:54 PM
Patrick's rule of composition-

If it looks good it is good.


Bill Mitchell
08-13-2007, 01:34 PM
I think that I've learned as much about composition in the darkroom as under the darkcloth. Not just "how to crop" but "if I'd only gotten a little more (or a little less) of that "whatever it is" in the frame to balance the picture. That sort of thing.

Bob Carnie
08-13-2007, 02:09 PM
(Think about how to put someting into empty space.)

I like this, negative space surrounding a main interest point is very important to me , I think by looking at the edges inward and considering image placement to its surroundings is critical. A blank white sky in itself can create a beautiful form surrounding a bag of potatoes.
A finely crafted photograph always has good negative/secondary space.

I hope I'm not going to offend anyone by saying I'm not altogether sure you can 'learn' composition. But if you're not happy with what you're doing - indeed for no particular reason, or all possible reasons, look at as much great art and great photography as you can. I think learning by osmosis is as helpful, or more helpful than learning or following any 'rules'.

Best of all, take a life drawing class, or possibly any drawing class, make yourself think about how to put something into empty space.

08-13-2007, 02:39 PM
Another interesting art-historical exercise to tackle is to look at original "great masters" paintings and then examine their copies. It is interesting to see how the copies evolve over time, and the way they diverge from the originals. Sometimes the copies end up becoming masterworks in their own right, but oftentimes they're just second, third or even fourth-tier period works. Observe the differences and why the lesser copies are lesser- not just in terms of technical paint application skill, but the changes in gesture, pose, and expression of the subject. It is amazing how much a little quirk in the positioning of something simple like a hand, or a shadow cast by a tree or rock or cloud can totally alter the mood of an image.

08-13-2007, 03:13 PM
(Think about how to put someting into empty space.)

I like this, negative space....
A finely crafted photograph always has good negative/secondary space.

I think Bob has it!
Creative composition comes out of our right brain (when we use that side) when judging spacial relationships in three dimensions. Left brain, when we numerically calculate size, or something measured. Negative space is everything in between what we look at and when we see in that way we start to compose. Where are the rules for that?

We just do it -
just like birds fly (they don't follow rules, they just do it).

08-13-2007, 03:33 PM
It's just like hockey. Don't look at the goalie, look at the empty spaces around him.

(And of course: you miss all the shots you don't take)